Sep 18 • 47M

Theory of Change #087: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela on fitness and fascism

Health and fitness interest is cross-political, but it is true that the far-right is trying to leverage exercise to radicalize people

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Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive. In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with guests to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.
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Episode Summary

As American conservatism is rotting out from the inside, it is slowly being replaced by both reactionism and fascism. It is a horrifying story to see, but there are also a lot of interesting things to notice as conservatism is decaying. One of those things that fascism is just as much an aesthetic as it is an ideology.

While it's become much more radical and obsessed with imaginary stories of national doom, the American far right has also become dramatically more interested in fitness and on looking good as they define it, with an additional focus by many on ancient Greek and Roman people who are known for their statues and philosophy.

That such a rapid interest in fitness would coincide with the political career of the obese ex-president Donald Trump is more than a little bit ironic. Nonetheless, some journalists and media outlets appear to be overstating the degree to which fitness may be associated with fascism.

This episode's guest is Natalia Mehlman Petrzela. She is the author of a new book called Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America's Exercise Obsession and a previous one called Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture.

Audio Chapters

02:26 — Today's classroom battles began in the 1960s

08:11 — How Donald Trump supercharged the macho reactionary tradition

12:37 — Fitness culture is cross-political and fascists are discovering their own athletic history

18:22 — Wellness culture is far older than you think

22:00 — Folk medicine, religious fundamentalism, and skepticism of doctors

25:58 — Homoeroticism and the fascistic aesthetic

31:38 — Media sensationalism about fascist gym people

38:44 — Right-wing activists using fitness and health advice to radicalize teen boys


Automated Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Natalia.

NATALIA MEHLMAN PETRZELA: Thanks for having me. Glad to take this conversation from Twitter to the screen. So glad to be here.

SHEFFIELD: That's right. Yes. Cool. All right. Well, so, you have written two books. Fit Nation is your second book. Your first one is very relevant to the present moment as well. So let's maybe talk about the first one and before we get into today's subject as well.

PETRZELA: Sure. So my first book was Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture. And it's one of these things, I guess, that I should be very grateful for where it came out in 2015. And honestly, my choice of topic, which was connecting curricular battles over race and sex at the time, people [00:03:00] were like, wait, why are you connecting these things? And now, as we see these battles over CRT and so-called gender ideology flaring up everywhere, now I'm like doing media for that book again. So I'm sorry that the political culture has taken that turn, but I was glad to have done a decade of historical research to help understand its origins.

SHEFFIELD: And for people who may not have heard the term gender ideology, what does that mean?

PETRZELA: Yeah, so that's a term and I say it sort of with air quotes that the right uses right now to talk about what they consider to be the kind of imposition of an ideological perspective on gender and what they define that as is this notion that gender is socially constructed, that the binary of maleness and femaleness is not real, that children can choose different gender identities, and then a close kind of addendum to that is that parents don't have a right to know [00:04:00] about to know or to dictate their children's gender.

And I think a big part of it is also the notion that gender is disconnected from sex, from biological sex. So they, they say that that constitutes gender ideology and that is being imposed on children at schools often without the knowledge or against the will of their parents. And that is a very powerful talking point right now.

SHEFFIELD: It is. Yeah. Yeah. And especially in regard to transgender people as well that, that you see a lot of people particularly predominantly, but not exclusively on the, on the Christian right who have, they have really, really believe that this is a religion an alternative religion that is trying to establish itself.

And they speak of it as such.

PETRZELA: Yeah. And that actually, the real historical origins there, like my book, I'm a historian and I was talking about the sixties and the seventies and a little bit, the 1980s. Similar moment to today, but obviously different issues. Nobody was talking about [00:05:00] transgender rights back then, but they were talking about this kind of new liberal or progressive approach talking about sexuality with kids as itself a religion.

And they called it secular humanism. And what you heard all the time was that the secular humanists have this new religion and it's softening kids up for communist takeover basically. And they're using sex to do that. And so, I guess jumping right into the somewhat salacious content here, but something that you would hear all the time was that sex education is kind of priming kids to let go of any kind of sense that this is inappropriate, or this is immoral or this is private. It has kids kind of talking about and indulging in their desires, and this will allow children to basically be so caught up in like a frenzy of sexual ecstasy or distraction that they are ripe for being taken over by communists because, there are loyalties have kind of been taken away from their family and from, [00:06:00] from God and country and family, really.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and they kind of, and, and that conspiracy theory kind of, I mean, it, it circulated somewhat widely on the political right, certainly within the John Birch Society, especially and that was one of the focuses of your book. Book as well. Because the John Bridge Society was founded out here in California, where I live, Southern California.

And really had, a huge amount of success out here. And in a lot of different ways, I mean, it's, I, the, and when we were talking a little bit before the show about how. The, the, the historiography of, of the American right tended to be mostly focusing on kind of these New York Manhattan nights, like William F.

Buckley, right? And the reality was that Buckley and his friends. just figureheads. They were people that were marching ahead of the parade and pretending to lead it.

PETRZELA: Right. And they also, I mean, a book like Buckley's God and Man at Yale, right? [00:07:00] That is a very particular kind of conservative intellectual tradition, like the John Birch society.

And some of these folks that I'm talking about who are organizing in churches and coffee clutches, they're circulating like these. pamphlets. Is the schoolhouse the place to teach raw sex? This is not emanating from a kind of, I don't know, elite intellectual culture at all. It's really a kind of much more grassroots effort.

And it's one, yeah, that the historical tradition, the historical profession had largely ignored. So as we were saying before, 2002. And in response, in some part to this 1994, I think, essay that Alan Brinkley had written in the American Historical Review where he said we need to pay attention to his two conservatives.

There was just this raft of new literature that was looking at grassroots conservatism. I kind of came into college, by the way, I grew up in a very liberal place. So to me, like conservatism was this, like, have I ever met one kind of thing? I'm not proud of my parochialism, but there really [00:08:00] was a lot of intellectual interest, including my own in understanding this phenomenon better.

And there wasn't really much work at all done on schools. And so that's kind of how I got interested in this as a dissertation topic at that time.

How Donald Trump supercharged the macho reactionary tradition

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and you, and your current book I think also you, you took the that you, you got ahead of the crowd as well, once again. So congratulations on that FITNATION and now, especially I think with Donald Trump, the, the rise of Donald Trump, it, it kind of reoriented the American right away from this sort of anti-government, we're going to limit the government, that we're going to obsess over economics and, and things like that. And, and Trump with his just flagrantly anti-intellectual and, Mussolini-esque mien, it, it made them, a lot of their people decide that well, maybe, maybe We were wrong to focus on that. And our voters don't really like that.

PETRZELA: Right. And there's more of this embodied kind of like red blooded version of, of [00:09:00] conservatism. That's what you're talking about. Right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so like for Trump, like he doesn't have a coherent ideology really, he's doesn't have a consistent viewpoint of taxes, he's promised five or six different versions of healthcare, including saying that Canada's and the UK's healthcare systems are great. And the, and the national health service, socialist healthcare in the UK is great according to Trump, but then Obamacare is bad.

PETRZELA: Yeah. No, I think that that's right. And so that, as you're saying, created this reorientation.

And so, the reason that I came on here and that you and I were talking on Twitter is because there has been this kind of raft of, I think, deserved attention to this phenomenon that there's all this kind of like fitness culture activity, which is coded very right wing, right? This kind of building muscularity and brawn and cultivating pure bodies and kind of elevating an ideology of [00:10:00] unsparing individualism through the gym. And I do agree with you that the Trump, the Trumpian rupture has something to do to with the rise of that kind of conservatism at the same time. It is so funny that Donald Trump would have. anything to do with the resurgence of any kind of fitness, anything, because one of the things that was remarkable about him is that unlike any of his modern predecessors on the right or on the left, he hates exercise.

Like you have George Bush, you have Clinton, you have Obama, you have all of these presidents across the aisle who, are constantly saying oh, look at me jogging, or I like to lift weights, or Reagan is posing on a Nautilus machine at the gym. It's uncontroversial because everybody in America thinks exercise is good for you and believes in some way that someone who exercises is disciplined and has their head on straight.

Trump breaks with all of that, and he embraces a much older kind of Version of what like a [00:11:00] powerful leader should look like he actually espouses this kind of 19th century idea about energy bodily energy where he's like, you're only born with basically like a battery and like, why would you use any of that energy exercising every day?

He'd say like, I have friends who do try out bonds. They're crazy. Like I would never waste my energy that way because he believed it was a finite amount and he and so he, he really derides all of that. He talks about, he's. Donnie two scoops or whatever with his double ice cream cones, his big red stakes, much more that image of the kind of fat cat as the power broker rather than the, jacked very capable kind of fit guy that you're seeing being promoted right now on shows like Rogan or otherwise.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah. No, it is. There, there is a tremendous irony. And, and I mean, that's, it's, I mean, that's the thing about Trump and his movement is that everything is a hypocrisy and irony simultaneously, like here you have a guy who's [00:12:00] talking about toughness and being strong and yet Constantly whining about everything.

He cannot shut up about how people are unfair and mean to him and complaining about

PETRZELA: them. I know. And it's funny though, that right now, he's in this pissing match with Chris Christie and what's his big insult for Christie, Chris Christie, like you're so fat, they like trade these things back and forth.

Whereas that's never really been a problem in terms of what Donald Trump thinks is inappropriate. Figure for our leader to cut.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and certainly he's no statuesque figure himself. So, yeah, it's true.

Fitness culture is cross-political, and fascists are discovering their own athletic history

SHEFFIELD: So it's interesting though, that this kind of obsession with fitness, it isn't coming necessarily from the base, not coming from Trump himself, but it's, it's kind of the, this refashioning that's happened in the right-wing intelligentsia, such as it is, and that's really who's doing this. And I guess probably the biggest proponent of all this is [00:13:00] this guy who's been writing under the name Bronze Age pervert. And people who knew who. For quite a while. His name is Costin Al Maru, and I'm sure I'm saying that wrong.

But he's I guess a Jewish Hungarian he got his PhD somewhere. I forget where it was. M.I.T.

PETRZELA: M.I.T. And went to my high school.


PETRZELA: I had no idea. How crazy is that?

Yeah. Sorry if I--

SHEFFIELD: You didn't know him though.

PETRZELA: If I was outing that, that you were going to save that, but yeah, I was shocked.

I read, I read that Atlantic article just because it's interesting. And I was really surprised to learn that I didn't know him. I think he's younger than I am, but not that much. We were there at the same time.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and what's interesting though, about this, this vibe that, I mean, he's really kind of just sort of a recycling of the aesthetic that people like Richard Spencer and some of these, alt right people, as they called themselves, were pushing earlier that this I mean, this idea that they're somehow the inheritors [00:14:00] and must be the defenders of the white race. And therefore they not only have to know the culture from which they came and take credit for, but they also have to defend it.

And part of that includes apparently being physically fit.

PETRZELA: I mean that tradition goes back a long way. Like I think that the current version of it that you see in some of these alt right, well, they're not really called all right anymore, but some of these like far right, exercise environments is much more kind of Marshall than the people in the early 20th century.

One of the things I discovered in my research, like long before this was like on CNN, every era in the Atlantic. was that early enthusiasts of strength training and of exercise often presented it very much as this way to preserve the white race. Less we have to be strong to go to war. But what's interesting about what they were saying is they this was a time when nobody went to the gym.

So they were kind of freak shows for spending this time [00:15:00] lifting weights and, kind of caring what they looked like and really suspicious. Like you must. And then gyms were horrible places. I mean, they wouldn't even count as gyms.

SHEFFIELD: Filled with disease.

PETRZELA: Yeah, like that. And they were considered to be places that gay men hung out.

So also like really unsavory. And so these early enthusiasts, lucky for this historian here, had to like, really articulate well, why would you do this? Why would you lift weights? Like, why is this good? And so often what they talked about was strengthening the white race. Think that this is a time.

When there's enormous immigration to the United States from Southern Eastern Europe and our kind of racial typology of that time saw those as inferior races, right? Semites and so forth. And enslavement had ended just a couple of decades before us. You also had all these free blacks.

And you had the expansion of the white-collar economy. So all of the so called like best men are sitting all day at work in these clerk offices. And you should see the panic about this. They're talking about, Oh, the slope [00:16:00] shoulders and the paunch and the sallow faces. And so there emerged these boosters who are like, this is a real problem for the perpetuation of the race.

And they talk about it just like that. And so you've got to go and get strong so that you can have more babies. And one of the things that was really remarkable as a historian, and I'm not the only one to write about it, but I couldn't believe how explicit it was in some sources was that you saw these guys and some women talking about.

Women need to cast off their corsets, which were popular among white, relatively affluent women. They need to pick up weights. They need to get strong. I'm reading this and I'm like, wow, how progressive and how feminist and all this. And then they say it's because we need fertile women. And these women of the so-called darker races are popping out babies at higher rates.

And if you want to preserve the white race, women have got to strengthen themselves to do so. And the way to do that is by weight training, et cetera. And that's really remarkable. And they talk also a lot about the distinction [00:17:00] between deliberate strength training versus manual labor, because that was like a real, as I was saying, a real assumption that they come up with came up against you're just essentially meatheads, not the word that they use.

the time. No, no, no, no. I'm not a mere breaker of stones, like just having brute force. I deliberately train for a kind of civilized superior body. So that's in like the early 1900s. And I think we see a version of that today in some of these communities that you're talking about. Although I agree, it's less the fertility angle and more the kind of we've got to prepare for a potential, a potential race war.

And also, I think we've got to preserve and embody a kind of traditional kind of masculinity when all these gender roles are in flux. I think that's a big part of it too.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think so. And I mean, in, in the case of the current people, some of that is also kind of, inflected through Germanic fascism, which kind of [00:18:00] imported a lot of yoga traditions and physical fitness and which it was also hypocritical as well because Mussolini was obese and yet was constantly walking around with his shirt off.

So, but, like, there's that consistency or inconsistency. The inconsistency is the only consistency.

PETRZELA: That's a good, a good role for writing history. Yeah.

Wellness culture is far older than you think

SHEFFIELD: Well, so at the same time, like there, there was also a focus, there's another kind of aspect of all this, that you know, what people now kind of call wellness or focus on nutrition or what they think is nutrition.

And in terms of like herbal supplements and whatnot, I mean, that's, that's a tradition that's been around in the United States for, since the very beginning. Why don't you talk about that aspect of things as well? Yeah.

PETRZELA: So that's a big kind of through line in my book. And what I'm trying to explain is how fitness, how exercise went from this strange subculture.

To being a social [00:19:00] imperative where the majority of Americans do not work out, but pretty much everyone agrees exercise is good for you and kind of feels bad. They don't exercise enough. Like I'm generalizing, but that's true. How did that happen? And the argument that I make is that fitness exercise went from being considered narrowly physical and therefore kind of suspicious to being subsumed in a larger wellness ideology where working on your body was seen as imperative to being a kind of full person.

So by the time it really kind of starts like after World War II, where I argue that we start to worry we start to define health. As less the absence of disease and more a kind of overall thriving that is psychological, spiritual emotional and involves working on your body and your mind and people across the political spectrum really glom on to that, like this idea of this holistic interconnectedness, and also the idea that it's up to you to take control of your health.

And that's very powerful among [00:20:00] certain activist groups on the left who are like, yeah, self-determination. I'm not waiting for some doctor in a white coat to tell me I don't understand my body. Like I can do this, but it's also very, very compelling on the right when you have, where you have people who are espousing kind of this.

Traditional conservative ideology, personal responsibility, and picking yourself up by your bootstraps--

SHEFFIELD: Rugged individualism.

PETRZELA: Yeah, rugged individualism. And don't wait, don't be lazy and wait for some pill or wait for universal health care. You just need to get outside and go for a run. So, come on.

And so that's really, really powerful kind of across the board. So I would say that wellness ideology becomes so powerful because it has that kind of reverberation and traction across the political spectrum. But wait, so you asked me like, how did we get, Oh yeah. And part of that in terms of like junk science and sort of like you said, nutrition with a kind of smirk because a lot of this advice is not so great.

Within that ideology, also across the political spectrum, is a [00:21:00] deep kind of skepticism of institutions, of received expertise, of the government, and so you see people coming out of places like John Birch, talking about, like, there's, we got to get the fluoride out of the water, and like, the government's trying to, they, they, I don't know if John Birch was against polio vaccines, but there were some who were there's that kind of, like, anti vax sentiment, but then you also have like feminists who, honestly, I totally understand, are like, you can't trust big pharma.

These are the people who greenlit drugs that gave us cervical cancer, right? And so you have this embrace of like natural solutions and all of these anti counterculture solutions, which have a varying degree of effectiveness and scientific kind of veracity.

But I think that's been brewing for decades but really, I mean, we saw in the pandemic that, that really blow up, but I would say yeah, that, that stuff has had appeal across the political spectrum for a long time. [00:22:00]

Folk medicine, religious fundamentalism, and skepticism of doctors

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it has. And one of the interesting things for me that I personally had had some contact with is that, I was born and raised as a very strict Mormon and Mormonism, it literally spiritualized 19th century health viewpoints through what they call the word of wisdom.

Which was basically a distillation of conventional beliefs among educated people in those days. One of which was that drinking hot liquid was bad for your body and you shouldn't do it. And so therefore the only thing you should drink, like it was like the, it was like temperance up past several inches.

So they were not, you weren't just going to not drink wine or spirits, but also you were not going to drink. Tea or even anything hot chocolate, even in the, in the original interpretation of that. And, and then there were, I mean, I think to some degree people know about the, the origin of graham crackers and as a, as a way to, to stop people [00:23:00] from, from masturbating.

So like there's this, this connection between religious viewpoints and, and health viewpoints. It's always been there. And both in this country and, and, much older than this one as well.

PETRZELA: Right. Well, if you think about it, it makes an intuitive kind of sense, right? What you put in your body is very intimate and very powerful.

And so it comes to kind of take on the belief system that you're living in. And I think, it's not this kind of this is more about kind of

And I ask, I get asked questions of like, how do you like sort this stuff out and figure it out? And it is really, really hard because like I was saying with the idea of the feminist health advocates questioning big pharma. There are good reasons to question big pharma, like the big food industry really is trying to poison you, right?

On the other hand is the answer to, or I shouldn't say trying to poison you, but they are trying to get you addicted to foods that do not serve your best health. I feel very [00:24:00] comfortable saying that, right? I completely understand why there are some people who take that and go like screaming in the other direction.

We've got to plant our own food, etc. Like it actually kind of makes sense. And I don't, I haven't figured out exactly how to navigate that or at least give useful advice beyond like, check your sources, look at various look at various news sources, like talk to actual people, not people on the internet.

But I think one of the really unfortunate things of the past several years has been the weaponization of this notion of do your research, right? Do your own research that QAnon has totally taken over and it's been used as a way only to undermine any, any information really. rather than I think to create new information.

And I think that's really hard as a historian, what I always used to say to my students, and I still do, but now I have all these kind of caveats. It's like, let's go to the primary sources. Let's read, let's not take their word for it. Now I'm like, do I sound like QAnon, and so I think it really is [00:25:00] hard to figure that out.

And I think though that acknowledging that difficulty though. is kind of helpful because you understand that there are people like Bronze Age Pervert who I don't have a lot of empathy for, but I think there are a lot of people, especially like during COVID who were really trying to figure out how to just like live a good life and not get sick and protect their families.

And a lot of this information is really primed to like. Get right in there in that uncertainty, with like very apparently certain answers.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. And one thing I tell people is that it's fine to be skeptical of institutions, but you need to be skeptical of the skeptics also, because ultimately, they're trying to sell you something.

even more often than, a government, a government office is not trying to sell you something. Right, right. They get their paycheck regardless of what you do or don't do.

PETRZELA: Yeah, that's a good point.

Homoeroticism and the fascistic aesthetic

SHEFFIELD: So, but so I guess [00:26:00] one of the other things that's kind of interesting with this kind of right wing focus on fitness is that there's in some regards there, there is a there's always been an undercurrent of, homoeroticism in fascism.

And, you certainly have seen that with Bronze Age pervert, but also who, many people have accused of being gay. But people have said that Richard Spencer is gay and a number of these and some of these, white nationalist activists are gay. Like there, there's a guy named Greg Johnson who is a publisher of books and he's, a, a gay atheist man.

And so like in, in some regards, it's, it's almost like this is, It's the only way that some gay right-wing men feel like they can express themselves in a permissible way in this subculture. I don't know. It's weird.

PETRZELA: That is interesting. So, I am not a gay right-wing man. So like I am, I can't say I completely understand the mindset, but I [00:27:00] do think it's important to realize something that is often forgotten in these current depictions of like Big muscular men who train all the time is like the alpha male.

I think one thing that's really important to realize is that for so long, like well into Arnold Schwarzenegger as celebrity, as a bodybuilder in the 1970s and onward to be a man who was that built and spent that much time on his body automatically made you suspicious for being gay. Like automatically, like when Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing promotion around pumping iron in the like mid, I can't remember if it's 76 or 77.

He says to a journalist and pardon my French, he says, I, I'm paraphrasing, but this is the slur he used. He goes, guys, people have got to know that just because a guy wants his body to look nice doesn't mean he's a fag. And he goes on to basically say like how that's his goal to dispel this.

And that really was the dominant idea. If you care that much, what you look like, if you spend your time. building your muscles, hanging out with other sweaty men, looking at those [00:28:00] magazines, spray tanning yourself. That's girl stuff, right? Men are supposed to be interested in the mind. And I think that we forget that now because one, there's really been a mainstreaming of kind of a stent attention to aesthetics among straight men in the past, like 30 years.

No question about that. So it's considered less inherently sort of suspicious or just positive of homosexuality. But that's existed, I think, for a really, really long time and, again, I don't know so much about these subcultures, but there is a lot of homophobia, of course. And so I think that the fact that this kind of bodybuilding is so much about building masculine strength at a moment when so called gender ideology is like saying, well, what is a man anyway?

And toxic masculinity is bad. traditionally gay male space actually becomes a lot more acceptable, right? Like, because what we're getting strong and we're getting jacked and like that kind of eliminates some of what we're considered the like more suspicious or [00:29:00] subversive aspects or, or associations with it, but it's complicated.

SHEFFIELD: It is. Yeah. And it's, it's almost, like the. See like, the, the guy who was married to Arianna Huffington Michael Huffington, he was a, a, a gay Republican. He didn't, for a long time he refused to be called gay because he said that he was, he was masculine and so therefore he could not be gay.

And, and it's like, like, this is a, this is kind of an undercurrent of. Far right, homosexuality throughout history is that they've always wanted to not believe that you could, that there was another way of being, having that as your orientation.

PETRZELA: Yeah. Well, you should talk to my friend and colleague, Neil J.

Young was this great book coming out on gay Republicans next year. So he's the man to talk about this for sure. And he's actually a gay man too. But yeah, I think that that's right. And I think that is associated with the fact that, of course in the United States for a long time to have an out gay identity was [00:30:00] very much connected with the identity politics of the left, right?

So that was less acceptable if you identify as a conservative, but something that's really interesting that's come through in Neil's work and also in a great book by Clay Howard about the Bay Area and kind of the politics of privacy is, there are. Quite a few gay male Republicans who are all about small government getting the hell out of our bedroom.

Right. And especially as those men have gained more economic power, that small government sensibility like works great for taxes too, and so it's not, I think it's like a, not that you're saying this, but it's a simplistic view when people are like, okay, Republican, how is that possible? And I understand where that comes from, but the notion. The gay masculinity is immediately coded as left wing, I think is really, really misguided. And I should also say like, there were theorists in the nineties who were writing about body fascism among gay men in the gym. And they weren't talking necessarily about political fascism, but they were talking about this [00:31:00] kind of like unsparing unforgiving hierarchy of kind of the bodily aesthetic of gay men.

And that, that, and, and like, that was, we talked about that. Talk about that a lot with women, but the gay man had like just as much, if not more of a hierarchy in that regard. That also has a lot of things to do with the HIV AIDS epidemic and the fact that gyms were real community centers for men, but also beyond that displaying a really fit muscular body in that period meant you weren't sick.

Right. So that kind of aesthetic was like re-layered on regardless of politics, but as a matter of almost displaying survival.

Media sensationalism about fascist gym people

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, so lately there have seemed to be, it's almost like every other month or so, articles coming out in publications saying working out is fascist now, and you need to realize that.

I think it is a disturbingly common article and I, [00:32:00] it's odd that it keeps getting written. I mean, what, what's your take on that?

PETRZELA: Oh my God. Well, I don't know if you know this, but you know, I was a victim of like a major clickbait drama around exactly this issue where I had Donnie Trump Jr. like screaming about me saying, do you know this or not? Oh, I don't know that. No. Oh, I was like, are you soft peddling this story? Cause you think I might run screaming. Oh my gosh.

So let me tell you because I think it's relevant. So I write this book fit nation. It's slated to be published very early January coincide with the gym rush.

I got this really good journalist at, at a time magazine who was interviewing me about the book. She interviewed me about the book. One of the questions is like, what's a surprise when you had, when you were researching this, the surprise was the story that I told you about how strident some of these early 20th century strength enthusiasts were about women lifting weights in order to make more white babies.

So that was like something I mentioned in there. The interview was very long. I talked about many, many other things. The headline that they give it was the white supremacist origins [00:33:00] of exercise in America and like six other facts or something. It comes out December 8th, sorry, December 28th. So it's like right in the middle of Christmas and New Year's.

I was actually in Egypt. I see like, I didn't even see the article first, but I see my alerts like pinging and it's all of the like far right, like the blaze daily wire, like all of those kinds of sites. And the, what's the idea? The idea is, Oh, everything's racist. Now woke professor says you can't even go to the gym anymore without it being racist, which was so not the point.

And in the interview I had said. I kept, I first thought, you go girl, women lifting weights. And then I kept reading and it's important to keep reading. But this thing took on a life of its own. Hannity was calling me, my brother's watching Fox and friends in some waiting room. He's like, they're talking about you on Fox and friends.

God felt like it was nonstop, including Donnie Jr. So some of it, I was getting death threats. The president of my university was getting contacted. The Daily [00:34:00] Mail wrote full articles, New York Post, it was crazy. Donnie Jr. gets wind of it, and thank God he didn't mention me by name, but it was easy to find.

And he's screaming about this, like, woke professor, everything's racist now, they want you to be obese typical feminist, lazy feminist. So yeah, so that happened. This is relevant to your question, I think, because I do think that some of what is driving this like exercise is white supremacy. And you need to know this is just like this click bait media culture that we're in.

I mean, that headline was so stupid and I hope you're listening time magazine and I tried to get them to change it. It was so stupid, so disconnected from the nuance that I tried to impart with this book and so clearly meant to drive outrage. And I think the clicks of honestly, some not so reflective people on the left who like love that stuff too.

And yeah, so I think that that's part of it. On the other hand, I do think that, in a very positive and helpful way, we are looking much more thoughtfully at. [00:35:00] The way is that like really noxious ideologies show up in apparently innocuous aspects of our everyday lives. The gym is one of them. I mean, I'm glad that this conversation is happening.

One of the main things that got me interested in writing this book like a decade ago was basically the concept that I had in my mind of like, Guys, it's not just the gym, like this place you go every day and spend a lot of money and sweat and everything is not just about physical exercise. There's a philosophical, emotional, ideological component to that.

And I didn't really know it at the time, but part of that community building, which was happening there. Was for some folks absolutely about resurrecting this kind of early modern version of masculinity and strength to resist what they see as the kind of decline of civilization, the weakening of masculinity and the increasing, I think, impurity of the body.

And we're seeing that [00:36:00] resurging. And I think. Interest in it both comes from a really good place of wanting to understand our world better and a totally awful clickbait-y place that is, I, I'm sorry to be caught up in, unfortunately.

SHEFFIELD: And people need to realize that just because you're learning about, certain aspects of history of a thing, it doesn't mean anything necessarily about how it is now or how it was in some other time period. These are just at the, everything is like a. These are just like threads that you're pulling and it's okay to pull a thread.

PETRZELA: Yeah. And like, this is interesting stuff, but like one of the things I often ask my students is like, especially because white supremacy has now become such a kind of buzz phrase is when they're like, well, that's white supremacy culture. I'm like, okay, how, you know what I mean? And I'm like, it's often not wrong, but like, it's not enough to just like dismiss it out of hand, or like to.

Yeah, to call something white supremacy culture just out of hand and not go beyond that. And I think that that's unfortunately what the tone of some of these articles [00:37:00] are at the same time giving, attention to something really important.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, I mean, and by that logic, Going to college is wrong because colleges, were owned slaves and they were started as Christian supremacist indoctrination propaganda centers.

So therefore you shouldn't go to college, right? If that's what you believe.

PETRZELA: Right, right. But these are like ridiculous perspectives, right? Like these aren't perspectives. These are such sort of purist, ideologically driven perspectives that nobody really lives by. These are the kind of things people say on Twitter and then they go to class or go to the gym or whatever.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and, and I think, a healthy aspect of things for the left versus the right is that, people on the left might pop off and say something like that, but it doesn't really have any heft behind it, the people at the top aren't saying, you know what, that's a good idea there.

Yeah. On the right, they'll go and make a book out of that or a Fox News rant about that.

PETRZELA: Yeah. I [00:38:00] will say that one of the things that keeps me on the left is that there are these studies that show that like left wing media, et cetera, tends to just like have more evidence behind it. Like there's a higher evidentiary standard and like that to me means a lot.

So yeah, I think that that, I think that's absolutely right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, okay. So. Now, do you see this physicality based right wing viewpoint as, I mean, is it really going to go anywhere? I don't, I don't know that it's going to.

PETRZELA: Look, I'm a little scared. I mean, I hope that this is just this extreme perspective and set of people that's going to kind of, that we're maybe paying outsized attention to and that it's maybe not going to go anywhere and these guys are just going to like, start running marathons or lift weights for fun or something.

Right-wing activists using fitness and health advice to radicalize teen boys

PETRZELA: That being said, like, I think we're remiss to ignore it too much. Look, I'm the mom of a 13 year old boy. It's really hard to grow up as a boy right now. One of the things that I think is so disturbing when you start paying attention to this kind of manosphere [00:39:00] and what's being directed at young guys is that there is this real mixture of like misogyny.

And like just really awful racism, et cetera. It's often bound up with semi sound advice about the gym. Like Andrew Tate is someone people write about a lot. And like, I try not to listen or watch too much and thank God my son doesn't watch. Or if he does, he doesn't seem to care for him at all. But like one of the things that's so noxious about this guy, who's literally serving time for trafficking and is like a known pimp who has raped women and like promotes this horrific misogynistic perspective.

He says things that are like. Get off your butts and go work out. Come on. Like you're going to feel so much better if you put down your phone and you hit the gym, you know what, that's actually good advice, but what's really hard to disaggregate is the way that that gets tied up with this totally noxious stuff.

And I think like, this is not the whole answer. But I do think I'm sometimes a little more critical [00:40:00] or, or, yeah, I guess a little more critical of the left because that's kind of like where I live. It's the educational environments that I'm in. I do think, it's important for people on the left, especially educators, to kind of reckon a little bit more honestly or fully with like, What it means to be a young man and what it means to like, want to be strong.

And what it means to, inhabit a kind of like cis hetero identity is something more than just toxic. And like, if you can, like, if someone with a really wonderful, enlightened perspective around gender equality and these educators. Absolutely exist are like, yeah, guys, like you should go lift weights.

Like that's awesome. Right. You don't hear that as much. And I think that that's unfortunate because there's really wholesome, wonderful stuff that comes from building bodily strength for boys, for girls. Like we should not see this to the right. That's really bad.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. No, that, that is a great point. I feel like at some point the left understood this a lot better when, with this slogan, the personal is political, which was very popular, in the [00:41:00] the so called new left of the 70s.

But now, this idea of. In, seeing your, your lifestyle through your politics and integrating them. That's, it's almost kind of, kind of regarded as dumb or day class A among people on the left to do that, I think.

PETRZELA: Oh, like it's superficial, like, because it's consumerism, is that what you mean?

SHEFFIELD: To some degree, yeah. And I don't think it's wrong to say that. Because, obviously you've got people like Gwyneth Paltrow selling all kinds of crap to people. So being progressive isn't something you can reduce to buying stuff, or being gay is not about buying rainbow shit. Or being a woman is not about doing X or Y, none of those things are true.

But at the same time, if you can't speak to cultural issues and you think it's beneath you, then you're leaving a lot of people behind.

PETRZELA: That's absolutely true. But I would say the earlier [00:42:00] iteration of the personal is political, which was about like, we need to talk about domestic violence and leave for pregnancy and birth control.

And like all of those issues of the body, which were considered like, Oh, that's like. Home stuff like that's not the realm of politics. You deal with that privately that no, we need actual policies to address that. I think that's still really, really salient. And then I think what you're talking about, yeah, that's interesting.

That's sort of like chapter two of the personals. political in the 1970s and the kind of consumer culture of like the me generation and retreats in organic food and, yoga and all of that. And seeing those kinds of embodied individualistic practices as a form of politics. Yeah, I think those do get that we cast aspersions on those honestly often on the left, but I've resisted that because I think honestly casting aspersions on that as political action tends to serve to like, say, women's consumerism is silly. Like that's often what those critiques come down [00:43:00] to. And I don't necessarily think that's true. And I think that even though capitalism, yes, is deeply problematic and we should like criticize it endlessly fine, but within that we're not just kind of capitalist dupes, like we make meaning in these environments.

And some of the first writing I did about fitness was about how these fitness communities, yes, they were exclusive by dint of the fact that you have to pay into them, et cetera. But at the same time, they at the same time they were places when people kind of like really reconstituted their sense of community, their sense of themselves, et cetera.

So, yeah, I'm, let's keep the personals political around certainly as Roe is reversed and we have all of these like. Very, child marriage is back like we need it. We need that. But I think also this consumerist dimension to it. It's still really relevant.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think that's a great point. And hopefully people will remember that. And think about that more because yeah, you can't cede lifestyle advice to the, the fascists. You, [00:44:00] you can't do that?

PETRZELA: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Cool. All right, well, it's been a great discussion here today.

PETRZELA: Thank you.

SHEFFIELD: So where can people find you on Twitter and elsewhere?

PETRZELA: So I'm on x slash Twitter and Instagram at @NataliaPetrzela, and I have a podcast Past Present, my book, Fit Nation.

Yeah. Or

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And spell your name for everybody who's listening?

PETRZELA: Oh right. Not everyone's looking. Natalia, N-A-T-A-L-I-A. Petrzela, P-E-T-R-Z-E-L-A.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, cool. All right. Well, it's been great. I appreciate you joining me today.

PETRZELA: Well, thank you so much. I look forward to this coming out and thanks for reaching out. It's really nice when a Twitter friend, transfers into a more engaged conversation.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us and you can always get more at This show is a part of the Flux Media Network, and we have lots more podcasts and articles about [00:45:00] politics, religion, media, and society. And of course you can go to to go to the section of Flux where we have all the previous episodes of this program.

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